What do an American president, an Oscar nominee, a scientist who was the first able to split the nucleus of an atom, and a rebel have in common? Well, they are all famous Irish people who made different breakthroughs in various fields. Their stories are intriguing, in a sense that they left a legacy that will make people remember them for a very long time to come. Their works were spread around different parts of the world, and some of them made it to the top while still clinging to their Irish heritage.
Famous Irish Historical figures: Politicians and Presidents
John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president of the United States, a descendant of County Wexford and icon for the Irish American community. Patrick Kennedy, the great-grandfather of John, Bobby and Teddy (his two brothers), left Ireland in 1848 to escape the grinding poverty and make a life for himself.
Probably the best international trip of Kennedy’s presidency was to Ireland in 1963 (the year of his assassination) where he was greeted by nearly the entire population of the country as a son returning home. He stayed at the Cavendish’s Lismore Castle. His visit had a side mission: to allow him to track down his relatives in Dunganstown. When he found the farmhouse, so the story goes, he held his hand out and introduced himself as “your cousin John from Massachusetts.”
Also, Kennedy took his time in Ireland to speak at a ceremony in New Ross (also in Wexford) and pay tribute to his Irish heritage. “When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all his grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
Daniel O’Connell, known as “the Liberator,” was born on the 6th of August in 1775 near Cahirciveen in County Kerry. He was educated in France because as a Roman Catholic he was unable to go to University in Britain. He returned to Ireland, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in Dublin in 1798. He built up a highly successful practice as a lawyer and dealt with many cases of Irish tenants against English landlords.
In 1794 O’Connell enrolled in Lincoln’s Inn, London and two years later transferred to the King’s Inn, Dublin. While in London, O’Connell became vehemently interested in politics. He read plenty of books from different movement authors and was influenced by the ideas of radicals such as Tom Paine, Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin. By the time he qualified as a lawyer in 1798 O’Connell was fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.
On the 11th of July 1846, O’Connell presented his “Peace Resolutions” demanding the absolute renunciation of the use of physical force in pursuit of national aims by all members of his Loyal National Repeal Association. The Young Ireland faction, a group of the most dynamic and influential Repealers of the younger generation, were unwilling to accept this principle unconditionally.
As a result, under immense pressure from O’Connell and his supporters, Young Ireland walked out of Conciliation Hall on the 28th of July and broke with the O’Connell-led Repeal Association for good. At that moment, the unity that the Irish National Movement had enjoyed for years under Daniel O’Connell’s leadership was broken, and physical force nationalism came to compete with the constitutional methods he had championed for so long.
In 1845 the famine struck Ireland and the Young Ireland members of O’Connell’s party began to advocate revolutionary doctrines that he had always opposed. Their arguments in favour of violent opposition to British rule led to an open split in Irish ranks in 1846. O’Connell was distressed by this disaffection among the Irish. Although suffering from ill health, he set off for Rome in January 1847 but died in Genoa on the 15th of May of the same year.
Colonel Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin, born on the 15th of January 1754 in Ballynahinch, County Galway, was an Irish politician and animal rights, activist.
Martin was born the only son of Robert Martin Fitz Anthony of Birchall, County Galway, and Bridget Barnwall, a daughter of Baron Trimlestown. Martin was raised at Dangan House, situated on the Corrib River, four miles upriver from the town of Galway.
He studied at Harrow and then after some tutelage for exams to gain admission at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was admitted a gentleman-commoner at Trinity on 4 March 1773. Martin did not graduate with a degree but studied for admission to the bar and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 1 February 1776. He served as a lawyer in Ireland and became High Sheriff of Galway in 1782.
His father wanted him to become a member of parliament. So, subsequently, he was elected to represent County Galway in Parliament in 1800. He was very popular with people in Galway and was well known as a duellist and as a witty speaker in the Houses of Parliament. He also campaigned for Catholic Emancipation.
After the election of 1826, Martin was deprived of his parliamentary seat because of a petition which accused him of illegal intimidation during the election. He had to flee into hasty exile to Boulogne, France, because he could no longer enjoy a parliamentary immunity to arrest for debt. He died there peacefully in the presence of his second wife and their three daughters on the 6th of January 1834.
Martin is best remembered for his work to outlaw cruelty to animals. He earned the nickname “Humanity Dick” because of his compassion for the plight of animals at that time.
Michael Collins was born in Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty, County Cork in 1890. At the age of 15, he left Ireland to work in London as a clerk in the post office. While in London, Collins joined the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) and the Irish Volunteers. Collins then returned to Ireland in 1916, where he fought in the GPO alongside Joseph Plunkett. Following Easter Rising, Collins was sent to a camp in Wales.
He was released in the first batch of prisoners in 1916 as he was not yet a well-known rebel. A couple of years after, he was elected to the first Dáil as a member of Sinn Féin, and he led a violent campaign against anything that represented British authority in Ireland – primarily the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Army. This put him at war with the British.
As head of the IRB, and, as minister of finance (executive in charge of money) in the Republican government, Collins successfully raised and handed out large sums of money on behalf of the rebel cause. Despite constant efforts, the British were unable to capture Collins or stop his work. The “Big Fellow” became an idolized and near-legendary figure in Ireland, and he won a reputation in Britain and abroad for ruthlessness, resourcefulness, and daring.
In late June 1922, after the population had supported the settlement in an election, Collins agreed to use force against the opposition. This action sparked a civil war, a bitter conflict in which the forces of the infant Irish Free State eventually overcame the extreme Republicans in May 1923. Collins did not live to see the end of the war, though. He was killed in an ambush in West Cork on August 22, 1922.
To this day, no-one is completely sure what happened or who killed him. No-one else was killed in the ambush. Collins’ body lay in state in Dublin for three days and thousands paid their respects. Thousands also lined the streets for his funeral procession.
Famous Irish People: Scientists
About 150 years ago, a scientist named John Tyndall carried out a series of experiments based on multiple theories of physics and matter that is still fundamental to science today. Some of these experiments were related to magnetism and led to his greatest impact in the field. what he described as radiant heat, more widely known nowadays as infrared radiation.
Tyndall knew that the air is made up of many different gases. One of these different gases would also have different properties in relation to radiant heat. After countless experiments, he reached the first scientific explanation for why the sky is blue, and crucially, was the first to realise the greenhouse warming effect of certain gases.
Thanks to Tyndall and his efforts, we now know what gases cause global warming. He aided the ways to challenge climate change and many climate change institutions were named after him.
Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Ireland’s only Nobel Prize-winning scientist, was born in County Waterford in 1903. From an early age, he excelled in math and science, and he won a scholarship to study at the famous Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge in 1927. In Cambridge, the task set to Walton and his research partner, Sir John Cockcroft, was to split the nucleus of an atom, using artificially-accelerated protons (and that’s had never been done before).
Together, they set about building a device which could fire particles small enough to break apart the nuclei of atoms. They designed and built what’s today called a Cockcroft-Walton Circuit which could deliver a massive charge of 7000 kilovolts. Using this apparatus, they’ve achieved their breakthrough on the 14th of April 1932: breaking apart the nucleus of a lithium atom. The experiment showed that a huge energy release could be obtained from a nuclear reaction.
Walton turned down an invitation to work on the US military’s Manhattan project to build the first nuclear bomb. In 1951, he and Cockcroft were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work. Although he retired in 1974 and moved back to Belfast, Ernest remained closely associated with the physics department at Trinity College Dublin and often popped in for a cup of tea and a chat with his former colleagues right up until his final illness. Just before his death, he presented the treasured Nobel Prize citation and the medal he had won for his work to split the atom to Trinity, in a clear indication of just how much esteem and affection he had for the institution.
Famous Irish People: Actors
Pierce Brosnan is a multi-award-winning Irish actor and film producer. He was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy. He made his film debut as Edward O’Grady in the 1979 TV movie Murphy’s Stroke. After his father abandoned his family, he was raised by his grandparents. After their deaths, he moved in with his aunt and uncle, who sent him to live in a boarding house.
Pierce Brosnan was the first ─ and, thus far, only ─ Irish actor to play the role of British secret agent James Bond. He played the classic spy in four films from the 90s up until the early 2000s when Daniel Craig took up the mantle. In recognition of a rich and extensive career in front of the camera and behind the scenes as a producer, Brosnan has received the honorary award European Achievement in World Cinema.
Liam Neeson is an Irish actor who was born on the 7th of June 1952 in Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland and educated at Saint Patrick’s College, Ballymena Technical College and Queen’s University Belfast. He moved to Dublin after university to further his acting career, joining the renowned Abbey Theatre. He is widowed and lives in New York with his two sons.
As an established screen star with Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nods on his CV, Neeson doesn’t need to worry about being out of work these days. But his ascent up the Hollywood ladder has been a long and hard one. In his 20s he was still making his mark in Irish regional theatre; by his 30s he had progressed to small parts in TV mini-series. It wasn’t until he was 41, when his Academy Award-nominated role in Schindler’s List put him firmly on the map, that he felt he had truly arrived.
Famous Irish People: Authors and Playwrights
On October 16th 1854, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wils Wilde was born in Ireland to a modal family. His father was a knighted doctor and philanthropist, and his mother was a renowned poet. As he was growing up in an environment where he was taught many intellectual studies, Wilde became a phenomenal student. He specialized in Greek and Roman studies and landed the top of his class for a few years and won some scholarships and awards.
He eventually graduated from Oxford in 1878 and in 1881 he released his first poetry collection. His main purpose for a while was lecturing. He toured America and Western Europe talking about asceticism and interior design. During one lecture he met Constance Lloyd who he married in 1884 and with whom he had two sons.
In 1888, Wilde took up the post as editor in chief for The Lady’s World magazine because he needed a more grounded income to support his family. However, since Wilde was not the type for a desk job, he was let go the following year after not showing up for work. But have no fear, this signalled the true start of his career. The next few years proved to be his most fruitful.
He reached the peak of his fame as a London author and playwright. He wrote many successful novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1891, Wilde was introduced to Sir Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas and he fell in love with him. Wilde was then arrested for incenting debauchery after he became very outspoken about his homosexual life. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour and was forced to sell his home, his furniture, and the rights to sell his works to pay back his creditors. By the time he was released, he was exhausted and flat broke.
The only person who stayed by Wilde’s side was perhaps Robbie Ross. He gave Wilde a home after prison, was with him when he died three years later, and made sure to keep Wilde’s legacy alive by buying back the rights to all of his work. Therefore, Wilde’s legacy was kept alive and now his literary works are taught all over the world.
William Butler Yeats
WB Yeats is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He belonged to the Protestant Anglo-Irish minority that controlled the economic, political, and social life of Ireland since the end of the 17th century. Yeats maintained his cultural roots, featuring Irish legends and heroes in many of his poems and plays.
1885 was an important year in Yeats’s early adult life, marking the first publication in the Dublin University review of his poetry. It was also the year when he met John O’Leary, a famous patriot who had returned to Ireland after totalling 20 years of imprisonment for nationalistic activities. O’Leary had a keen enthusiasm for Irish books, music, and ballads, and he encouraged young writers to adopt Irish subjects.
Yeats was compelled to accompany his family in moving to London in 1886. He continued to devote himself to writing Irish subjects with Irish characters: Poems, plays, novels… you name it. However, the most important event in his life took place in 1889. Yeats met the woman who became the greatest single influence on his life and poetry, Maud Gonne. She was Yeats’s first and deepest love. She admired his poetry but rejected his repeated offers of marriage, choosing instead to marry Major John MacBride. Gonne came to represent for Yeats the ideal of feminine beauty—she appears as Helen of Troy in several of his poems—but a beauty disfigured and wasted by what Yeats considered an unsuitable marriage and her involvement in a hopeless political cause, Irish independence.
Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. Ireland had newly become independent at that time and he was the first Irish man to be honoured with the coveted prize. Yeats died on January 28, 1939, at the age of 73, at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France.
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, the third and youngest child, and only son, of George Carr Shaw and Lucinda Gurly, was born on 26th July 1856 at 3 Upper Synge Street, Dublin. Shaw’s father, a corn merchant, was also an alcoholic and therefore there was very little money to spend on Shaw’s education. Shaw went to local schools but never went to university and was largely self-taught.
Shaw hoped to become a writer and during the next seven years wrote five unsuccessful novels. He wrote several plays with political themes during this period. Like many socialists, George Bernard Shaw opposed Britain’s involvement in the First World War. He created a great deal of controversy with his provocative pamphlet, Common Sense About the War, which appeared on 14th November 1914 as a supplement to the New Statesman. It sold more than 75,000 copies before the end of the year and as a result, he became a well-known international figure. However, given the patriotic mood of the country, his pamphlet created a great deal of hostility. Some of his anti-war speeches were banned from the newspapers, and he was expelled from the Dramatists’ Club.
Shaw’s status as a playwright continued to grow after the war and plays such as Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah, Saint Joan, The Apple Cart, and Too True to be Good were favourably received by the critics and 1925 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar in 1938, the latter for the adaptation of his play Pygmalion to the cinema.
Another famous Irish writer and one of the most significant writers in the world is James Joyce. He was born on the 2nd of February 1882 in Dublin, Ireland, he was the oldest of ten siblings. His unique style of writing help to revolutionise fiction writing in the early 20th century.
He is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce, as an Irish author, was deeply impacted by his surroundings and Irish upbringing. Which is quite evident through the settings and subject matter of his novels.
One of his best pieces of work is thought to be the short story ‘The Dead’. This is found in his Dubliners short- story collection written in 1914. It has even been considered a ‘masterpiece of modern fiction’. Director John Huston then turned the story into a film years later, which was publicly praised.
Famous Irish People: Musicians
In the year 1976, aspiring drummer Larry Mullen pinned an ad on the notice board at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, looking for people to join a band. He’d just acquired his first drum kit at the time and wanted someone to practice with. Paul Hewson (Bono), Dave Evans (The Edge), Dik Evans, Ivan McCormick and Adam Clayton joined up with him. The Larry Mullen Band’s first practice sessions took place in Larry’s kitchen, where it soon became apparent that despite their name, Bono was really the one in charge.
Their name had changed to ‘The Hype’ before the band eventually settled on U2. They chose that name because they considered it somewhat vague and liked the fact that it could be interpreted in several different ways.
U2 is now considered one of only a few bands to achieve consistent commercial and critical success across three decades. It has charted success on its own terms on both the artistic and business sides of the music industry. Their 2000 record, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, not only sold a staggering 12 million copies, but it gave the band a renewed relevance in the wake of 9/11 when songs like “Walk On” came to symbolize an America figuring out how to pick up the pieces. Other songs like the anthemic “One” had always found a universal relevance, but this was a reminder of exactly why U2 was so popular: It united the types of people who would normally never agree on liking anything.
George Ivan “Van” Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on August 31, 1945. Morrison began listening to song records around age two or three, and when he was 15, he was completely hooked on the idea of becoming a singer, and he dropped out of school to pursue a musical career. His first full-time effort was with a local band called the Monarchs. The band toured Europe, often playing military bases, but by the time he was 19, Morrison had left the Monarchs behind to open a Belfast R&B club and form a new band called Them. The band made big sales and even went on tour, but Morrison decided that it was time to depart from the band and go solo.
Van Morrison’s reputation speaks for itself, both musically and with the multiple honours that have been bestowed upon the Irish singer/songwriter. He’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and the winner of multiple Grammy Awards. In 2016, he received a knighthood from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace for services to the music industry and tourism in Northern Ireland. The artist was introduced as Sir Ivan Morrison as he stepped forward to be dubbed a knight.
Famous Irish People : Sports & Athletics
Conor Anthony McGregor was born on the 14th July 1988 in Dublin, Ireland. He is an Irish professional mixed martial arts and boxer. He is probably one of the biggest and most recognisable Irish sporting stars due to his success in mixed martial arts and for his huge personality, not afraid of how he feels. McGregor joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2013, known as “The Notorious.” He then went on to unify the featherweight division with his title win in 2015 and the year after that he became a two-division champion by winning the lightweight title.
In 2017, Conor McGregor made a huge move to boxing and had his first and only fight so far with Floyd Mayweather, Conor famously lost the fight. Although he lost the fight, he still got a huge payout of 100 million pounds, so you could say it all worked out well.
George best has been considered one of the best footballers of all time. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he grew up playing football and at the age of 15 years old he was spotted by a football scout. The scout sent a message to Manchester United Manager, Matt Busby that said: “i think i’ve found you a genius.” Only two years after being scouted, George Best made his debut for United at 17 years old. He also went on to play for Northern Ireland and the Irish football association described him as “the greatest player to ever out in the green shirt for Northern Ireland.”
In his adult years, Best began to have an alcohol problem, leading to numerous controversies and eventually his death. At the young age of 59, Best passed away in hospital as a result of lung infections and multiple organ failures. Despite his alcohol problem, no one could deny how great of a footballer he was and he inspired so many people all around the world.
On the 22nd of May 2006, which would have been George’s 60th birthday; Belfast City Airport was renamed the George Best Belfast City Airport as a tribute to him in the city he grow up in.
Famous Irish Women:
Katie Taylor is one of the best female boxers to come from Ireland and maybe even the best female boxer in the world at this moment. Born and raised in Bray, Ireland; Katie started off boxing at the young age of 11 and was coached by her dad, Peter Taylor. At the age of 15 years old, she fought her first official female boxing match in Ireland and of course she won. She has then gone on to fight in the Olympics in 2012, where she came home with Gold. Taylor turned professional in 2016 and has gone on to win numerous fights. Katie is currently the unified lightweight female world champion.
In may 2018 she was ranked as the worlds second best active female lightweight boxer. Katie Taylor has become an amazing role model for other young girls and boys wanting to get into the boxing sport and represents Ireland well, she is one of our great exports!
Mary Theresa Wilford Robinson is an Irish independent politician who served as the 7th president of Ireland. She was also the first women to hold this office. She has often been highly praised for her time as the president, helping to transform Ireland into a more modern country and revitalising the political office for the better.
Mary Robinson left her Irish presidency a few months before her term ended to pursue humans rights work with the United Nations. Working for the United Nations, Mary was an important figure that constantly changed perception and fought for human’s rights all over the world. Through her work, she has obtained many awards that recognise her contribution to society and her amazing human rights efforts.
Soarise Ronan is another one of Ireland’s great exports, she was born in Bronx district of New York but moved to Ireland when she was a young child with her Irish parents. She has gone on to become one of the most successful actors. Starring in huge films from Atonement at only 12 years old and other popular movies such as Brooklyn, Lady Bird and the Lovely Bones. Saoirse has over 25 movies under her belt and only being 24 years of age, there is so much more to see from this brilliant actress and all round lovely women.
During the 90’s Sonia O’ Sullivan became one of Ireland best athletes and sporting stars as she won many medals in the Olympics, World Championships and European Championships. Sonia became an inspiration to many and brought hope back to Ireland after it had been hit by a huge economic difficulty. Through her sporting career, she racked up an impressive 8 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze medals at the world’s most important athletic competitions. In 2007 she finally retired from competing in sports but she went on to become a sports commentator for RTE.
A woman that has often been overlooked in different accounts of Irish history is Kathleen Lynn. She was an activist, political and medical professional. Her work in each of these areas has been hugely beneficial and helped shape the events of a difficult period of time in Ireland. Kathleen Lynn graduated as a doctor from the Royal University of Ireland in 1899, becoming an active suffragette, labour activist and joined the Irish Citizen Army. She was also a chief medical officer during the 1916 Easter Rising.
Her role during the Easter Rising put her and many other Prominent figures in Kilmainham Gaol. When Lynn was release, she founded a hospital for infants at Saint Ultans after she was affected by the poverty and poor quality of life in Dublin at the time. This was the only hospital in Ireland that allowed women to work. Due to Lynn’s hard work and commitment the hospital grow quickly and by 1937 it was the primary vaccination centre in Ireland. It also provided different medical and educational facilities for mothers and children. She played an important role in shaping Ireland for the better.
For such a small country, Ireland has produced some of the most famous Irish people that are recognised all around the world. From well- known actors to presidents of the United States and Political leaders, sporting stars; there is nothing we can’t do and we have that Irish charm that people love, maybe that’s why Ireland is full of successful men and women.
Have you ever met any famous Irish people? We would love to hear any stories you have of meeting famous Irish people!
Also, don’t forget to check out related blogs that might interest you: Famous Irish Authors who Helped Promote Irish Tourism| Get to Know Some of the Most Famous Irish Proverbs| The Famous Danny Boy Song| All About the Popular Irish Author: CS Lewis| Good Vibrations in Belfast: A Guide to Belfast for Music Fans|